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Gaming Retrospective: Half-Life
Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.
When I was a kid, I was never quite sure what Half-Life was. With its odd title and seemingly endless expansion packs, all I understood about it by the time I bought it (and, in a twist of fate, for a couple years afterwards) was from the Opposing Force demo. I was 12 and my father allowed me to buy an M-rated game for the first time, and I wanted the then wildly popular Counter-Strike. I had to exchange copies four times before I got a code that worked (Valve had just launched their bizarre DRM system, Steam, in anticipation of Half-Life 2‘s release). The back of the box, marked Half Life: Counter-Strike, claimed that it had “the entire multiplayer Half-Life experience,” and included Half-Life, Opposing Force, Team Fortress, Ricochet and Deathmatch: Classic. Perhaps because the box was marked Counter-Strike or because of the box quotes’ focus on multiplayer, it was an entire year before I realized that the package included Half-Life’s single player content.
I was dimly aware that there was a single player component to Half-Life. I had managed to make it through the tutorial at a friend’s house when we booted up his father’s copy in secret, and I downloaded a demo for Gearbox’s Opposing Force expansion pack, but even once I found that “New Game” took me to the single player content (I assumed it would start a new server, somehow ignoring the “Create Server” option), Half-Life felt different.
Half-Life’s opening doesn’t feel like a video game opening at all. The silent player character, Gordon Freeman, spawns on a train moving slowly through a vast facility as the opening credits roll and a calm female voice spouts banal announcements about train safety and upcoming workplace events. For reasons never explained, Gordon is an entire hour late for work and his need to get in uniform and into his lab provides the only sense of urgency in the first 20 minutes of gameplay.
Of course things go wrong rather quickly once Gordon gets to his lab, but Half-Life’s world never feels artificially constructed for gameplay purposes. Early on, navigating levels means finding emergency access ramps and loose vent covers, while a healthy amount of mercifully easy and low-risk jumping puzzles ensure that levels never feel like a series of corridors. Even health and armor pickups are justified in-universe with first-aid and energy stations. Much of what makes Half-Life’s setting, the Black Mesa research facility, so believable is how it feels like you’re moving through a facility designed specifically to contain a disaster such as the one Gordon triggers.
Half-Life is lean in a way not even modern first-person shooters are. There are no cutscenes, and I can think of only one instance where control is taken away from the player. The story is told through sparse in-game dialogue and, more prominently, through gameplay and puzzle solving. While this makes for an engaging story, it does not make for a complex one. With its sequels and spin-offs, Half-Life’s world has become significantly more detailed, but the first game lacks any significant world building or character interaction. Gordon is the sole named character, and most humans he encounters die or are left behind within minutes, if not seconds.
While the expansion packs, Opposing Force and Blue-Shift, both take place at the same time as Half-Life and fill in some of the blanks, most of Half-Life’s questions are left unanswered, even after one sequel, two expansions, a spin-off series and two episodic installments. That is not a problem, necessarily, and in fact it reinforces the claustrophobic atmosphere that permeates the entire experience, but anyone looking for a definite narrative will likely be disappointed, especially since the subtle hints of a larger world are so fascinating. Maybe in Episode 3.
Despite how mechanically traditional Half-Life’s gameplay is, it has a way of keeping things varied, moving at a breakneck pace despite its focus on puzzle solving and exploration. Half-Life feels fresh and fun even today because of its fantastic sense of pacing. Most of the action unfolds through elaborate set pieces broken up by large scale battles and regular changes to the gameplay formula; a major plot twist early on adds heavily scripted human enemies into the mix, while a later level delights in setting up complex ambushes along a subway system. That these complex, scripted sequences are still direct variations on Doom’s formula of shooting aliens and finding obscure secrets in no way diminishes their impact.
Half-Life looks dated, but is still an exciting and immersive shooter with a combination of horror, exploration and pure action that remains absorbing today. Half-Life is available on Steam for $9.99, with its three expansions for $15.99, with all Half-Life and Half-Life 2 games for $39.99 and with all of Valve’s games for $99.99. A port to Half-Life 2‘s Source engine is also $9.99, but save for some slight visual upgrades (notably to the water and particle effects) this version is identical save for longer loading times.
Recommended mods: While Steam support means that Half-Life is ready to play on any modern OS (including Mac and Linux OSs), a stunning amount of full conversions have been created and in some cases directly supported by Valve and sold commercially (such as in the case of Counter-Strike, which eclipsed Half-Life in popularity and has received multiple sequels). Some major ones worth exploring are the massive Sven Co-op, a mod that allows co-op games in either new levels or in Half-Life’s campaign, and horror game trilogy They Hunger, which PC Gamer was so impressed with they distributed disks of the mod with the magazine.
Those scared off by Half-Life‘s dated looks and mechanics might want to play Black Mesa, a remake of Half-Life with the Half-Life 2 engine that updates the graphics, modernizes the gameplay and ties the story a bit more closely into the rest of the series. Black Mesa‘s gameplay changes are fascinating, and make for a certainly more detailed but only arguably better game than Half-Life. It is at the very least a fascinating example of game design for anyone familiar with the original game. Black Mesa does not currently cover the entirety of Half-Life, as the final two levels are slated to be added in a future commercial release on Steam.